Jefferson and Slavery


Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence invokes the ideals of democracy and freedom. Yet he remains a slaveholder for his entire adult life, and (unlike George Washington) does not free his slaves in his will. Jefferson’s own struggles, moral and political, to reconcile his position as a slaveholder and a democratic idealist earned him admiration on the one hand and a deep distrust on the other. Recent DNA evidence has shown it likely that Jefferson fathered at least one child by his slave Sally Hemings. In this lesson students will examine Jefferson’s complex personality in relation to his own time.




Students should read the following documents in advance of the lesson:

  • Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, including the preamble and the section (written by Jefferson but deleted by Congress) charging the king with collusion in the slave trade – (Document I).
  • Excerpt from Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV, "Laws." – (Document II).

Ask students to consider whether the readings conflict. The teachers may choose to underline select words appropriate to the class level and request students to define those words as a vocabulary assignment; the teacher may also tell students to write down those words and phrases which she/he finds most important.

  1. Divide the class into small groups to answer the question, "What makes a great leader?" Groups report their findings, and the teacher places student answers on the board.
  2. Write on the board
    • Wrote the Declaration of Independence
    • Founded the University of Virginia
    • Secured the purchase of the Louisiana Territory
    • Supported religious freedom
    • Served his nation as governor, ambassador, cabinet member, and president
    • "What is the relationship between your ideas of a great leader and this list?"
  3. Have students read the selection from Notes on the State of Virginia. – (Document II). Have students to write down words, or phrases, that reveal Jefferson’s views on African Americans.
  4. Have students consider
    • What opinions does Jefferson express concerning African Americans?
    • How can the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence also have written this section of Notes on the State of Virginia?
  5. More advanced classes can read Query XVIII, "Manners," also from Notes on the State of Virginia
  6. The runaway slave advertisement from the Virginia Gazette may also be introduced to dramatize Jefferson’s role as a slaveholder.
  7. Now that we have read some of the evidence, does Thomas Jefferson deserve to be called a "Great American Leader"?


Homework Assignment

Use information from any of the documents above and your prior notes to support your arguments for either activity A or B. – (Documents II and III). Compare these two chapters. What do they reveal about the man who wrote them?

  • A: Write an editorial for your school newspaper on whether Thomas Jefferson’s birthday should be added to the dates of federal holidays.
  • B: Put yourself in the position of a free African-American living in Jefferson’s times. Write a personal letter to Thomas Jefferson expressing your concern about the institution of slavery. You may choose to include questions for Jefferson’s response.